Sarah Ruhl, the playwright, continues to show the range of her writing skills with her latest, Stage Kiss, which Playwrights Horizons is currently presenting at its home base off Broadway. Ms. Ruhl is one of those fortunate American writers who have found a theatrical home in New York, in her case at Playwrights, as has Nicky Hilton at the Vineyard. Lanford Wilson’s work was produced again and again at Circle Rep during its 23 year run off Broadway, and August Wilson’s ten plays covering black life in each decade of the 20th century all started at Yale Rep under the direction of Lloyd Richards.
Back in the 1930s Clifford Odets had the Group Theatre and Mrs. Shaw’s son Bernard could always count on the Theatre Guild to put him on, no matter how outside the loop his newest offering might be. And Andre Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theatre has publicly stated that Tom Stoppard always has a home for his plays whenever he wants one.
My point is there are tremendous advantages for all of us in this system of playwright-adoption by most of the now non-profit theatres and the old subscription based versions of the same. But as always, there is a fly in the ointment.
A decision to produce all or most of a writer’s works allows him or her in turn to allow imagination to roam free, and creativity to flow without inhibition. But in so many instances I wish there were someone holding the reins who might at least say: “Why don’t you examine that scene one more time?” or “It’s only a suggestion, but do you really need that one character, you know – the one who always seems to get in the way just as a scene is about to climax?” Or in the case of Stage Kiss, I think an early discussion about consistencies of style and substance would have been helpful.
What I’m trying to say here is that too often, and Stage Kiss is a fine example, a play that begins intriguingly and then wanders into strange territory is something of a frustrating hybrid. In this instance, Ruhl introduces an actor and actress (called “He” and “She”) about to start rehearsals for a new play. He and She, both involved presently with another romantically, have acted together 20 years ago, and had a wild affair at the time, one which ended abruptly.
Still dormant but dying embers from its blaze exist. In this new play-in-progress, there are many stage kisses in rehearsal and they lead to a mature version of their long ago affair that has now grown to full blown passion. How Ms. Ruhl has her characters deal with this is always interesting, often very funny, on occasion quite moving. For me though, she seems to be of several minds about how she wants to treat the situation. She’s put the two in a farce, a melodrama, mixed with a sober examination of maturing love and overheated passion. Sometimes, particularly in the weaker second act, she even resorts to comic filler that dissipates the tension built by the characters’ development in the earlier scenes.
She’s written some comical supporting characters; the director of the play within-a-play, the understudy who must carry on when the actor playing her lover cannot continue because of the feelings the process has unearthed. Michael Cyril Creighton and Patrick Kerr fill these roles perfectly, creating very funny characters, played with assured comic style.
The play is helped as well by the performance of Jessica Hecht, who is a fine actress capable of playing high and low comedy as well as nuanced dramatic work. In her last play, Assembled Parties, she put her quirky mannerisms to good use to add color to the Manhattan matron she was playing. In another recent outing, the revival of Harvey, she handled the loopy sister of the protagonist with assurance.
This time out she seems less secure, perhaps because the writing roams all over the stylistic map, and she roams right along with it. Dominic Fumusa has all the old fashioned bravura of the old timey leading men of the early silver screen, playing a combination of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn with great panache. Daniel Jenkins, on the other hand, as the offstage husband chooses to lay low until his big moment late in the play when he reasons with his wife, when he presents to her his true feelings about her, when he explains to her just what marriage means to him.
He’s just fine in this lovely scene, but it seems to come from another play, not the kooky farce we’d just spent an hour or so enjoying on a completely different level. Rebecca Taichman as director has been unable to choose which road to take in determining the style of the piece, so she’s chosen them both. But to my mind, the problem began with the script itself, which hasn’t made up its mind either.
Ms. Ruhl has now had a dozen New York productions of her plays, and her premises are always interesting and varied. She writes with style, her characters are vividly drawn, she is attracted to relevant issues, ranging from the marriage in this play, to the plight of women living in Ibsen’s time, to the power of the legend of Eurydice to a translation of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. The not-for-profit Playwrights’ Horizons is fulfilling its commitment to support talented writers. I ask only that they add a dramaturg or two to its staff, or if they have them in place already, that they encourage them to challenge their gifted playwrights to being a little tougher on themselves before they hit the main stage with a new work. I would call Stage Kiss an entertaining, but frustrating, near miss.
Playwrights Horizon’s production of Stage Kiss has been extended until April 6, 2014 at the Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, NYC. Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.